E-book Borrowing: Publishers and Libraries Disagree

If you received a Kindle or Nook as a holiday present, you’re probably wanting to put some e-books on it. Last year’s Christmas was the single biggest day for e-book sales for Harper Collins, according to the New York Times. While you can go to Amazon and buy or rent books, you could also go to the webpage of your local library. But if you do the latter, your choices are likely to be limited and could be even more limited, as publishers seek industry-wide regulations about e-lending.

Worried that people will click “borrow” on a library’s website rather than buy an e-book on an e-commerce site, many major publishers in the US block libraries from accessing the e-book form of all their books, or of the the most recent ones. Their arguments are based on the fact that e-books can theoretically be downloaded an infinite number of times; as Maja Thomas, a senior vice president of the Hachettte Book Group in the digital division says, “that is not a sustainable business model for us.” In contrast, borrowing an actual, real, print book requires getting yourself to to the library, finding the book on the shelf, checking it out and then returning the book to the library. Real books are, of course, subject to physical wear and tear — ripped pages, coffee splotches — and must be replaced from time to time.

Some large publishers, such as Simon & Schuster, have never made e-books available to libraries. Since March, Harper Collins began to license each e-book copy sold to a library to be loaned out a maximum of 26 times, rather than allowing unlimited loans; after reaching the maximum number of loans, a library can repurchase access rights at a lower cost than the original price (this policy only applies to popular titles). There are limitations when borrowing an e-book: Only one person can read the book at a time and people still have to wait for a title to become available.

Of course, publishers and the authors of books have to protect their financial interests. But publishers’ restrictions on e-books “tamper with the sacrosanct idea that a library can do whatever it wishes with a book it obtains,” as the New York Times points out. American Library Association  President Roberta Stevens said in a press release:

“Libraries have a long history of providing access to knowledge, information and the creative written works of authors. We are committed to equal and free access for the millions of people who depend on their library’s resources every day. While demand has surged, financial support has decreased. The announcement, at a time when libraries are struggling to remain open and staffed, is of grave concern. This new limitation means that fewer people will have access to an increasingly important format for delivering information.”

There is a silver lining in that some 1,000 smaller publishers have no restrictions on how many e-books they sell to libraries, so readers can read those books as often as they’d like.

E-books are clearly the format that many of us will be reading in the future. A million Kindles were sold in the three weeks prior to December 15; I was pleased to note that our local library has a few Nooks that can be borrowed, for those who aren’t sure about purchasing one, or who can’t afford one. But living in an era of e-books means that libraries’ holdings are not quite as “free and public” as they used to be. Certain books are free, but only to a certain extent, according to the publishers’ terms. Should libraries, and library patrons (i.e., taxpayers who support public libraries), not have a say in e-lending issues?

Related Care2 Coverage

Can a Bookstore Not Have Books?

“Occupy” Movements Raise Libraries Across the Country

Could School Librarians Become Extinct?



Photo by Paul Stainthorp


William C
William C3 months ago

Thank you for the information.

W. C
W. C3 months ago


Catherine A.
Past Member 2 years ago

Awesome work! That is quite appreciated. I hope you’ll get more success.Technology and engineering Ebooks

a             y m.
g d c5 years ago


Eternal Gardener
Eternal G6 years ago

I'm a dinosaur with this, looooove real tactile books with pages, they become my friends....

Carol C.
Carol Cox6 years ago

My kids gave me a Kindle for Christmas last year and it is WONDERFUL! i am an avid reader of anything! living in Venezuela, books in English are almost impossible to find or buy so we rely on each other to trade books ( the American community is getting smaller as we speak) but now with my Kindle i can purchase online and have over 100 books in one little package! amazing to me....i can even share with my friends!

Mary Robert
Mary Robert6 years ago

My husband and I use e-books because he has trouble focusing on paper books. With ebooks one can change the typesize and leading. Try Project Guttenberg. Lots of great, public domain pieces. We do need to stop this proprietory format stuff though. It is ridiculous to have to buy things in several formats. Companies made lots of money on vinyl records and paper books. You could play the vinyl on any record player and we all lent our books and music constantly. It actually leads to people buying more, not less. You find out about things you would not have bought if no one had lent you a copy. Most people want to own books and music that they love & borrowing freely is a great way to find new things to love.

Lin Penrose
Lin Penrose6 years ago

Thanks for the article. I received a Kindle as a gift from my husband. I was sorry to tell him to "please return it, but thanks for the caring". We can't afford to buy books or rent from the E-suppliers, and they often are very limited in selections. Also, I'm an older person who grew up with libraries and books in hand, as my dear friends. I do Not like having trees & ecosystems consumed for my reading pleasure though. Perhaps some entrepreneurs can find a good & environmentally clean use for all the wasted plastic that ends up in land-fills and other places. Use the plastics for real books, not e-books. They can potentially last many thousands (perhaps millions) of years without deteriorating. I think (hopefully) there are markets for both.

Deanna J.
Deanna J6 years ago

...limit a limitless resource like this, and you will encourage THEFT.

Any book that you can Google the Title of is pretty much available in stolen electronic form now anyway, why make legal options for obtaining books/literature even narrower?

I hate to tell publishers this, but my generation has the idea that there is no reason to pay for music, movies, and books, because the legal, purchasable versions of them are not only too expensive, but are hard to deal with. "What do you mean I can't put the music I just bought on a CD on my iPod?" "What do you mean I can't put this movie on my computer?" "What do you mean $15 shipping?" Make something unnecessarily complicated, and you will encourage theft of it in another format. Plain and simple.

Fredericka Neal
Fredericka Neal6 years ago

I think there should be E-Libraries. I still mostly like the feel of a real book in my hands, but if I can't afford to buy one, I should still be able to get what I want to read; be it a real book or an E-book. I'm so tired of all the copyright stuff. Put a time a limit on it or something, but it should be available to whomever wants to read it, be it E-book or not!